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Archive for the tag “J.M. Coetzee”

White writing, dark materials

On Thursday 4th January 2018 we got together at Cafe 41 with David Levey and Tony McGregor for our monthly literary coffee klatsch.

David said he had been reading a book by Philip Pullman. La Belle Sauvage, that was supposed to be a prequel to His Dark Materials, and thought it lacked a sense of purpose. Pullman is apparently also planning to write a kind of postquel, or requel, as he calls it.

That got us chatting about other books where a book was followed by others to form a trilogy, which wasn’t as good as the first book, or the first trilogy. I thought of Dune, where the sequels were mediocre at best, and didn’t nearly live up to the original. Val mentioned Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books, where the first trilogy was quite good, but the second seemed to be running out of ideas. Another was William Horwood’s Duncton Wood, which was followed by five others, each one worse than the one preceding it. And probably the worst of all was the sequel to A Canticle for Leibowitz, one of the best science-fiction books I have read, whereas the sequel was one of the worst. Some people have only one book in them. David said he thought that Madeleine l’Engle’s books worked with sequels, though I haven been able to read more than the first two, because they are hard to find in book shops.

I have been reading J.M. Coetzee’s White writing and I find it more interesting than his novels, and David agreed that he thought Coetzee a better critic than author, in spite of his having won the Nobel Prize for literature and all. I have learned quite a lot about European art history from the book — Coetzee points out that the first writers about the southern African landscape were schooled in the European picturesque style, and nothing in southern Africa fitted it.

We talked a bit about the plaasroman, which Coetzee deals with in some detail, and Val mentioned three in the genre by Elizabeth Vermeulen (none of them mentioned by Coetzee), She had had one of them as a school set book, and it was the most interesting of their school set books, far more interesting than Thomas Hardy, which they also had. . She had mentioned this to a work colleague, who had found her copies of Vermeulen’s trilogy: Towergoud, Fata Morgana and Reënboog in die skemering.

Tony McGregor mentioned Alan Paton’s account of a journey to Malawi in search of the Mountains of the Moon, and David promised to send us a copy of his thesis on Alan Paton’s early writing, which was very different from his later works. I had thought that the Mountains of the Moon were further north than Malawi, and once read an adventure story about an expedition to find them that involved airships, probably written in the 1930s, about the same period as Alan Paton’s expedition.

In the abstract of his thesis David notes:

Paton’s earliest, fragmentary novel, ‘Ship of Truth’ (1922-1923) is read in some detail; his second, and only complete early novel, ‘Brother Death’ (1930), is commented on in as much detail as its frequently rambling nature warrants. A chapter on shorter fiction discusses his short story ‘Little Barbee’ (1928?), his short story ‘Calvin Doone’ (1930), his third novel, ‘John Henry Dane’ (1934), and a novel or novella, ‘Secret for Seven’ (1934). From all these readings it emerges that the Paton of his early fiction is markedly different from the Paton generally known: his concepts of human identity, of God and of religion, though earnest, are unformed and frequently ambivalent; his characterisation often stereotyped and wooden; his political views usually prejudiced and his stylistic and other techniques, though adequate in a young writer, highly repetitive

Perhaps that can form the basis of future discussions. I tend to find the concept of “identity” rather vague and problematic
as I have noted here.

Tony told some stories about his ancestors in the Eastern Cape, and David also seemed interested, so we recommended that he get the RootsMagic genealogy program and link it to the FamilySearch site.

 

 

Steinbeck & Coetzee as chroniclers of their times

The Wayward BusThe Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What do you think of your fellow passengers on a bus, or a plane, or a suburban train?

Usually they are anonymous.

You might sometimes idly wonder about their lives outside the conveyance that briefly brings you into the same moving space, but rarely does it go beyond that.

But in this book it does go beyond that. A group of people, with their own lives and thoughts and histories are drawn together as passengers (and a driver) on a bus, and by the end of the book they have all interacted with each other, and their lives have all been changed in some way.

Some knew each other before they got on the bus: there is a family travelling on vacation, and two of the passengers were employees of the driver, but none knew all the others before they gathered for the bus trip, and before the journey ended they knew things about the others, and about themselves, that they had not known before.

There is little action, and no real plot. The book is a study of character and human interaction between people whose paths briefly, and apparently randomly crossed.

One of the other reviewers, Kim, writes (Goodreads | The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck — Reviews, Discussion):

The narrative is in the third person, with shifting points of view and an uncomplicated linear progression. The point of the work is not so much the plot – because not a lot happens – but more the characters’ internal conflicts and Steinbeck’s critique of post WWII American society. Steinbeck sets the work in a fictionalised Salinas valley and starts it with a quote from Everyman, the 15th century English morality play. This is a clue to the fact that the characters represent more than themselves and are to an extent allegorical figures.

And that invites a comparison with another book I have just read, Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee, because Coetzee seems to be trying to do for South Africa what Steinbeck was doing for America. Disgrace could be said to be about the characters’ internal conflicts and Coetzee’s critique of post-apartheid South African society The difference is that Coetzee writes from the viewpoint of one character, and all the other characters are seen through his eyes.

I disagree about the extent to which the characters are allegorical figures, though. They are stereotypical rather than allegorical. They don’t really represent abstract qualities or concrete historical personages, as those in allegories do. But they do represent types of people — the war profiteering businessman, the manipulative wife, the celebrity-obsessed shop assistant, the lecherous mechanic, the ex-serviceman salesman. And in Disgrace the disgraced professor, the hippie-going-on-earth mother daughter, the uptight puritanical school teacher, and the peasant, who calls to mind Roy Campbell’s poem The serf

I see in the slow progress of his strides
Over the toppled clods and falling flowers,
The timeless, surly patience of the serf
That moves the nearest to the naked earth
And ploughs down palaces, and thrones and towers.

And there is a similar abstracted “feel” to Steinbeck’s Of mice and men and Coetzee’s The life and times of Michael K. This quality is hard to put a finger on, but I find it in both Steinbeck’s and Coetzee’s writing. It’s more noticeable in Coetzee, because I have been to the places he describes his characters as visiting, and they feel like the same places in an alternative universe, where there are points of resemblance, but history has taken a slightly different turn. But in both the buildings feel like stage sets, and not places where real people live and work.

I compare The Waward Bus with Kerouac’s almost contemporary On the road. It’s not my favourite Kerouac book, but that characters are alive and the places real. And I had a similar feeling when reading Coetzee’s Youth. It feels as though a lot of important in-between bits were left out.

Disgrace

DisgraceDisgrace by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book won the Booker Prize, so someone must think that it’s great literature. I’m not so sure. I nearly stopped reading after the second chapter. I just didn’t connect with any of the characters.

It’s about a university professor who seduces a student. Her father complains and he is asked to resign and does. He goes to stay with his daughter in the Eastern Cape, and doesn’t really connect with her.

I didn’t connect with any of the characters, and their motivations seemed strange to me. Or perhaps their actions seemed to be unmotivated. I found the ending very sad.

That was about all I could say in my review on Good Reads, but I read it at a time when I was seeing a lot of posts about “farm attacks” and “farm murders” in social media. One of the scenes in the book is a “farm attack”, which which seems to link with what I was reading elsewhere, but that goes beyond what the book says, so I’ll say more about that aspect of it here.

One of the stories was this: Zuma should face the International Criminal court charges over murder of farmers: former Miss World Anneline Kriel:

Former Miss World Anneline Kriel has suggested President Jacob Zuma face charges of crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court for failing to protect farmers in South Africa.

Her call‚ which includes the deployment of the military to protect vulnerable farmers‚ comes after a string of farm murders and the release of quarterly crime statistics‚ which revealed that there had been 116 more murders than the same period last year.

And I think, how stupid can she get. Zuma has many faults, but he did not give orders to criminals to murder farmers, as George Bush did to his air force to bomb Iraq, or Tony Blair and Bill Clinton gave orders for their air forces to bomb Yugoslavia. If they weren’t charged in the ICC why should Zuma be?

The increasing bombardment of racist propaganda about “farm attacks” as “white genocide”, seems calculated, by its very irrationality and its racist assumptions, to make one lose sympathy for the victims of farm attacks. The propaganda tends to create the impression that the victims of farm attacks were themselves as racist as the propagandists and that that they therefore somehow deserved what they got.

I wonder, why this singling out of one occupational group, and I want to say “all lives matter”, not just farmers’ lives, but then we are also bombarded with constant propaganda from a different quarter that it is wrong, evil and wicked to think that all lives matter.

But then I think about my own personal experience. As far as I can recall, I knew four people who were murdered. They weren’t close friends, but they were people I had known and talked to. And three of the four were murdered in farm attacks. The fourth was murdered in a town attack. Those are the ones I can recall now. Neil Alcock, Theo Vosloo and Jan van Beima were murdered in farm attacks; Fritz Bophela was murdered in a town attack (a drive-by shooting). So among the people I have known who have been murdered, farm attacks outnumber others by 3:1. But all of them were pre-Zuma, and that is just my experience. Other people may also know people who were murdered, but possibly in different circumstances.

And that brings me back to the book.

It did not make racist propaganda about the farm attacks, such as one sees on social media. But nevertheless there was a racist subtext. The only black people in the story are described in a racist way, not directly; it is a subtext, not the main text, but it does tend to leave the reader with the impression that all black people are like this.

It is also from the viewpoint of the protagonist, and the protagonist’s viewpoint is not necessarily the author’s view. It is sometimes too easy to think that it is — I’ve seen people attributing views to Dostoevsky through quotes from his novels, but they were quotes from his characters, not from Dostoevsky himself. So it is dangerous to attribute the views of a fictional character to the author. Part of the skill of a novelist is to create believable characters with their own views.

Nevertheless, at the end of the book, the reader, or at least this reader, is left with the impression of black people that “give them an inch and they’ll take a yard”. That’s a common white racist stereotype. Yes, it’s the view of one character, but it’s also the impression created by the book as a whole.

Perhaps it did not strike the people who awarded the Booker prize like that, but that is how it struck me.

 

 

 

 

The life and times of Michael K

Life and Times of Michael KLife and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Michael K is a gardener in Cape Town whose mother, a domestic servant, is ill, and fears she may lose her job, so he decides to take her back to Prince Albert in the Karroo, where she grew up. But there is a war on, and people need permits to travel, and though he applies, the permit is lost in red tape, so he decides to set out on foot, with his mother in a home-made wheelchair. She takes a turn for the worse, and is admitted to a hospital in Stellenbosch, where she dies and is cremated. Michael K continues alone, with his mother’s ashes, but has only the vaguest notion of the farm where she grew up from her description.

When he finds a farm that he thinks may be the right one, he find it abandoned, and so lives as a recluse, shunning human company and becoming self-sufficient, but though he has left the world, the world keeps breaking in on his solitude, and trying to remould him according to its own values.

It is well written, and has won several literary prizes. I found it more readable than other books by J.M. Coetzee, and quite a gripping story. The first part, about the journey to the farm, is reminiscent in a way of Sammy going south by W.H. Canaway, which describes a similar journey, though of a child rather than an adult. After Michael K becomes a recluse, it is quite different.

There is also a surreal quality to the book. It was first published in 1974, which was in the middle of the apartheid era, but there is no mention of apartheid in the book. Race is never mentioned, and so it seems unreal. The bureaucracy is there, but the people are more kindly than they were in that era. So while the book is set in South Africa geographically, it seems to be a South Africa in an alternative universe, as if it had taken a different turning, and developed in a different way.

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